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You Ain’t Had Fun til You’ve Run the Ton

Me coming out of Aid Station 1, 9.8 miles

Sunday 1st July was my birthday. I wanted to celebrate it with style: I thought, “If I’m 70 miles into a 100 mile run, in the dark, somewhere up on the South Downs – tired, footsore and possibly worse – as I see in the big day, what could be better?” So it was that sometime last autumn I got my entry in for the Centurion Running South Downs Way 100, which was to be my main project for 2012, before I’d thought of doing the London Marathon in a ‘good’ time for Excellent.

Once I’d got my London entry in, I had to abandon most of my ‘ultra’ training before 22nd April, concentrating instead on ‘normal’ endurance training and speed. I had five long ultras (85+ miles) under my belt, including one of 104 miles (the LDWA 2010 Heart of Scotland 100). I thought that, together with good general endurance fitness, the experience these events gave me would get me through 100 miles, so I wasn’t too worried.

The race follows almost all of the South Downs Way (SDW) west to east. The first 1.5 miles coming out of Winchester is omitted and it diverts from last section to finish in a different part of Eastbourne, as neither end of the national trail would make a good race start or finish venue!

The only occasions I’ve previously spent much time on the SDW have been running: as a team member in the 2007 Oxfam Trailwalker (100km) and on the LDWA 2009 Wessex 100 (which I didn’t finish). I had memories of glorious views across the Weald and ranks of wooded hills.

Two other members of my club, Chippenham Harriers were doing the race too: Ian Trussler, my regular partner in crime on many of my silly endeavours, and Dave Jones, another special needs runner. I’d persuaded them to do it ‘with me’, although actually they were going to do it together and I was hoping to complete it faster than them. ‘Sub 24’ is a good benchmark time for a ‘100’, so that was my aim, whereas Ian and Dave, who had not run 100 before, were looking for a finish without a particular time target.

Thoughts of glorious views weren’t coming to mind when I stood in Chilcomb Sports Ground, near Winchester, waiting for the start of the race at 06:00, 30th June. A stiff breeze blew light rain onto the competitors and grey clouds streamed past, with no gaps for blue sky or sun, although it felt mild.

The first part of the race was on part of the SDW I’d never been on before. We ran through various wooded or tree overhung sections, which were muddy in places, but the trail must drain well because it wasn’t that bad considering the awful summer we’d been having. The light rain turned into a heavy shower for about 15 minutes. When you just want to push on, it requires discipline to stop and put a waterproof on, but it’s usually worth bothering, as it was then.

As I often do in these events, I fell in with a couple of other runners who were going at my pace, we chatted, and the time passed quickly. I have David Pryce and Rich Fuller to thank for making that first section such a blast. We reached the first checkpoint (referred to as ‘aid stations’ in Centurion Running races), 9.85 miles from the start, in 1:35, a surprisingly quick time. We were well inside 20hr, let alone 25hr pace, although of course we anticipated slowing down a lot as the race progressed. I didn’t feel like we’d pushed ourselves that hard, so I didn’t fret over it.

I stayed with David and Rich for most of the first quarter of the race. They both seemed a little stronger than me and were just pushing my pace slightly. I knew that sooner or later they would drop me. Sometimes in these situations I’ll just tell the stronger runner to get on and leave me so I’m not cramping their style, then slow a little. In this case I dove off into the woods to use the facilities and didn’t rush to get back on the trail. I hoped my confidence in their strength was right and they would keep on ahead of me to a good finish.

The weather had picked up and the views were indeed glorious from the long escarpments, typical of the SDW, that I had been running on since Aid Station 2, 22.6 miles, at Queen Elizabeth Country Park. The ‘hot food’ aid station at Washington, 54 miles was ‘only’ about a marathon away. I keep myself going, even in shorter races, by dividing the race up into ‘chunks’ in my mind, and ‘ticking each one off’ as I do it. There are 13 aid stations in total on the SDW100, Washington being number 7, so I had a few smaller chunks to do, then hot food and the satisfaction of being over half-way to look forward to.

I had a hot dog at Washington, which was great, although I’d eaten rather well at all the aid stations (I’ve never eaten so many mini pork pies), so I wasn’t desperately hungry. I was pleased that my appetite had remained strong, as running for a long time can upset the stomach or at least dull the appetite; obviously not good when you need all the calories you can get. I had a good break, chatting to Cath (my wife) on my mobile whilst sat on the side of the Washington village sports field. It took a few minutes to get my legs going properly when I set off again, but it wasn’t too bad: I’d noticed that I wasn’t having too much trouble getting going again after any of the aid stations, even after sitting, which can be deadly.

The rest of Saturday daytime slid by. By now I was running on my own quite a lot. I got rather warm in the sun on the sheltered stretches, then a little cold in the more exposed places. Although it was dry and bright, the air was fresh compared to the early morning, when I’d quickly got too hot despite the light rain and breeze. It was about as good for running as June gets.

Twilight came, and it cooled quite quickly. By the time I arrived at Aid Station 10, 69.8 miles, at Clayton Windmills (known as ‘Jack and Jill’), it was getting pretty dim. I was really pleased to have done over 2/3 of the race before dark. I had 8 1/2 hours to do ‘only’ 30 miles if I wanted to meet my 24hr target, which seemed eminently doable, barring a big mishap.

I became part of an ‘intrepid trio’ again during the night section. This time I have Ian Holdcroft and Luke Carmichael to thank for good company. I am a strong hill runner (compared to ‘club’, rather than ‘fell’ runners), which allowed us to be remarkably evenly matched overall: Ian and Luke tended to pull away from me on the level sections, but I would catch them on the climbs.

We separated when I developed pain across the top of my left foot at about 85 miles. My Merrell Trail Glove ‘barefoot’ shoes have a precise fit, with little ‘give’ in the uppers. This is great for ‘technical’ (uneven, rocky, steep) trails and stops me getting blisters, but they are very unforgiving if fastened too tight. My guess is that I’d fastened them just a little too tight, and they’d taken 18-19 hours to ‘let me know’, but after 85 miles maybe my foot had just had enough! I did my “No, you go on” thing, letting them go and spending 5 minutes carefully re-fitting the shoe, although there was no way the foot wasn’t going to hurt for the rest of the run. A couple of groups of runners passed me as I sorted my foot. At first the looser shoe made it worse, probably because of the blood flowing properly again.

Somewhere before Aid Station 13, 91.6 miles, at Alfriston, I bore right, following some other runners, who were 100m or so ahead of me, down what seemed to be a major track, and lost the SDW! The track seemed a little undefined, but on its eastern stretches the SDW is often a short grass swathe between longer grass, so this didn’t alarm me too much. I was getting suspicious when the group I’d followed started to mill about a hundred yards ahead of me. This group were Ivan Sadler, Hannah Shields and Nicole Brown, all of whom I’d seen and chatted to earlier. They checked the route and used a compass to confirm we were on the wrong bearing: we shouldn’t have borne right. We trotted back to where we’d turned off and so confirmed we were back on track, having added a mile or so to our 100.

I stayed with Ivan, Hannah and Nicole over the rest of the high ground. Being in their group kept my motivation and therefore speed up, so we happily rattled across the dark, lonely downs. There was a steep technical descent to get into Alfriston, which made my left foot hurt anew. However, this is the sort of stuff I really love, even after 90 miles, so I hammered down, losing the other 3 in the process.

When I got into Alfriston Aid Station I was surprised to see Ian and Luke, who made the same mistake as us, but taken longer to correct it. I hooked back up with them and we set off for the last big climb of the race, onto Wilmington Hill. We had no thoughts of running it, but just got our heads down and strode up as briskly as we could manage.

We weren’t in any sort of mood to hang about at Jevington Aid Station, a mere 4.3 miles from the end. The climb out of Jevington came as a shock: we’d been warned about the ‘Alfriston’ climb, but this one was not that much easier. However, I knew it was shorter, and the finish was only 3 miles from the top, so I ran! A slow, plodding run, but a run all the same. I enjoyed getting my teeth into it and I knew it would test Ian and Luke, whom I pulled away from. I was sure they would easily outstrip me on the flat tarmac in Eastbourne in the last mile of the race, so I thought I should make them work to beat me.

At the top of the climb, the race leaves the SDW for good and follows Willingdon Bottom into Eastbourne. It was a really technical, narrow track, right in the crease of a steep-sided ‘V’ cut into the hillside woods. I hammered down this, figuring I could open up even more of a lead.

When I finally got into Eastbourne, suddenly on a residential road, I could see no sign of Ian and Luke. I was just plodding again, knowing that this last stretch would be a real grind. Eventually I saw the other two emerge at a junction I’d come out of a minute earlier: they were, indeed reeling me in. When they caught me, they started getting all polite, suggesting they would hold back for me, but I sent them on their way: it was a race, after all.

After what seemed like a long time, I turned into the grounds of Sussex Downs College. I ran surprisingly fast (in my mind, anyway) around the half of the athletics track we had to cover to get to the finish line at the far side. I’d done it: 100 miles in 22 hours, 47 minutes, 43 seconds. I had a bit of a lump in my throat and I let the feeling of euphoria and relief wash over me.

So that was it; I just had to try to get vaguely comfortable, and possibly have a sleep, until the bus came to take us back to the start at one o’clock. The showers in the sports centre next to the track were cold, so I just rinsed the worst of the dirt off my legs and got into my sleeping bag (it was in my finish ‘drop bag’)

I slept a little, but really wasn’t very comfortable. Boredom got me up and I decided to take a (very) leisurely walk to see if I could meet Ian Trussler and Dave Jones on their way in. I did see them, but I also met another runner who’d taken a wrong turn: it looked like some locals (probably ‘youths’) had moved some of the red and white tape that marked the course. I carried on away from the finish, and sure enough found pieces of tape tied to lamp posts on the street that would lead runners back away from the finish, which I removed. Luckily the tape for the right direction was still in place, and it was a more obvious route, so the other runners I’d met hadn’t even noticed the ‘rogue’ tape.

The final runner I met out in Eastbourne was Gary Butler. He had been having severe pain in his left foot since about 80 miles. He was making tortuous progress and I thought I’d better keep him company to the finish. We were passed be the other tail-enders and he finished, last and proud, in 29:51:06.

Dave Jones finished in 28:36:30 and Ian Trussler in 28:42:42. I was surprised to discover that Rich and David, my race buddies from early on, actually finished not very far behind me: Rich had got very lost; I wasn’t sure what happened to David.

Doing ‘100’ in less than ’24’ was a ‘benchmark’ achievement for me. I came away from the SDW100 pleased with my pacing and very pleased with my eating! I think a high proportion of savoury food (especially those blessed pork pies) helped here. I’ve gained more experience and am already wondering what my next long ultra should be.

http://www.justgiving.com/excellentlondonmarathon
http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/excellentlondonmarathon

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Vane Glory (or Ben Vane 1, Prometheus 0)

Having posted on something a while after the event the last time, I’m at it again! I’m well behind now, having been away for more weekends and spent the weeks in between keeping up with the normal stuff.

On Friday, 1st June I took a delivery up to Helensburgh, Argyll and Bute. The weather forecast looked pretty good, so I planned to take the opportunity to sneak a peak, as I often do when delivering near near some decent hills, then spend the night in my van afterwards. I’m slowly (very slowly) working my way through all the ‘Munros‘ (3000ft mountains in Scotland): there are 283, and I have climbed just over half  of them. An obvious ‘new’ Munro for me was Ben Vane, which would be number 147.

Wanting to get maximum value out of my time away from home, I also booked a ticket to see Prometheus, in IMAX 3D at the Odeon, Braehead cinema. I’d never seen an IMAX film before, so I was looking forward to a spectacular treat!

The standard ascent of Ben Vane is a straightforward, out-and-back route: the foot of the mountain is accessed by a hydro-electric service road from the side of Loch Lomond, then the peak is climbed up a steep path with a few brief scrambling opportunities.

The ‘hydro’ sub-station and several sets of pylons clutter the views lower down, so it’s just as well the service road is tarmacked and makes for rapid progress. It was a relief to be climbing the mountain path in ‘no time’.

The path winds its way through very steep, craggy slopes. The steepest bits are rather dirty, as you would expect, but many of these take you round the edge of sections of lovely, clean, not-too-steep rock, which were a pleasure to scramble up. I was wearing my Merrell Trail Gloves, and, just as I found on the Start Point tors, they were really suited to this. It was fairly sunny, but with a refreshing breeze; ideal for a fast paced ascent.

I got to the summit in about 90 minutes from the road and spent a while enjoying the views and taking pictures. I made a quick descent, which would have been tricky and slow without the path (crags are hard to spot from above) and got an interesting view of Ben Lomond between two small rock faces on the way down (see the last picture).

Many runners get delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) in their thighs after big downhill runs, which is due to eccentric muscle damage, caused by using the thighs as brakes during the descent. Confidence and technique allow good hill runners to let gravity do its thing on steep descents, going faster and more or less avoiding DOMS in the process.  However, the descent was fairly technical and I couldn’t ‘let rip’, so I got my first case of DOMS for years a couple of days later!

I had plenty of time to get to Braehead and see Prometheus, which was rather an anti-climax, hence the alternative title for this post. I posted the review, below, on Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo’s film review Facebook page:

Firstly the film – Not so much a triumph of style over content as design over content. The ‘deep’ questions the film asks are a cipher, a reason to fly a beautifully designed ship out to a beautifully designed planet, which has some beautifully designed alien stuff and aliens on it, where the crew, a group of underdeveloped characters who we don’t much care about, get involved in some beautifully designed set pieces.

It was a stunning film, but didn’t leave much of an impression, because the depth promised early on evaporated. If you want a proper thrill ride, which doesn’t promise any depth, but actually delivers (a bit) more, see The Raid.

Then the 3D -This was my first IMAX film: where was the extra detail? My guess is that my brain was too busy trying to focus on things that appeared to be at different distances because of parallax, but were actually all at more or less the same distance (on the screen), to properly process all that lovely IMAX detail. So I say Mark’s right: 3D isn’t just a gimmick, it’s a distraction that gets in the way of a good viewing experience.

Another problem with 3D is that it you have to keep your head vertical: cock it slightly, as you tend to do when staying in the same position for a while, and the polarising no longer lines up and you’ve got a double image.

Oh, and the deluxe 3D glasses we were loaned for the screening gripped my skull like a vice behind my ears and gave me a bit of a sore head by the end of the film.

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Bit o’ This, Bit o’ That

I had another hard tempo run on Saturday: 9-10 miles on the local lanes. There are an abundance of quiet roads and byways north and west of where I live, which are especially useful at this time of year when the days are long. Winter is a different story: it’s very limiting around where I live when it’s dark.

I once more enjoyed the feeling of going fast for a decent period and ran the last mile in about 6:40, which is fast for me.

I ran the Castle Combe Circuit (CCC) on Sunday. It was my first chance to use my new Merrell Trail Gloves (TGs), which Merrell very kindly gave me to aid in my big running summer for Excellent, because I make regular contributions to their Facebook page (general reports on my outdoor activities with mostly praise and a little constructive criticism of their ‘barefoot’ shoes).

I’ll keep using my old pair of TGs, which have far less tread, on firm trail and road runs: when I compared them to the new ones, I was shocked to see how much tread I’d managed to get through. The new ones give a little more confidence in softer going, although much of the CCC was earthy rather than muddy. The luxury of having a ‘good’ pair and a worn down pair is great!

Seeing as Merrell have been so kind to me, I’ll definitely use TGs on the South Downs Way 100 and report back to them on this fairly extreme test.

http://www.justgiving.com/excellentlondonmarathon
http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/excellentlondonmarathon

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Merrel Trail Glove Review

Rating: rated 4.5 of 5 stars

Source: bought it used
Price Paid: £50 (‘nearly new’ off eBay)

Summary

A true ‘barefoot’ shoe with a tough sole that is good for trails, provided they’re not too muddy. The very ‘precise’ fit makes them a good shoe for technical trails.

Pros

  • Precise fit
  • Tough sole protects the foot well
  • Wide toe box

Cons

  • Tread is too shallow for muddy trails

The Merrell Trail Glove (TG) is one of the new generation of ‘barefoot’ running shoes. The TG’s cushioning is very minimal, but what makes it a true ‘barefoot’ shoe is that it has no heel-forefoot differential, that is the shoe does not lift the heel relative to the forefoot at all. Standard running shoes have 8-12mm (1/3-1/2 inch) differential, with ‘minimal’ shoes around 4mm.

I bought them in May 2011. I’m a UK-based ultra runner who is used to minimal (but not ‘barefoot’) shoes, ie Brooks Mach Spikeless, Inov8 F-Lite 230, and even I have found the Trail Gloves a huge change! The TGs engage all the leg and core muscles, not just the more limited range normal shoes do, making for a very intense running workout!

The fit, not just the sole is ‘barefoot’. The wide, ergonomic forefoot allows the toes to splay: this is key to getting your feet working fully. The fit is very glove-like, although the upper has no stretch so they can take a bit of putting on, but this is a small price to pay for the very precise feel of the shoe, which makes them good for ‘technical’ trails.

The TG has a shallow tread for a trail shoe, so it makes a pretty good all-rounder, but not suited for muddy conditions.

In August 2011, I did half of the 85-mile Ridgeway Challenge in the TGs, at which point I was happy to change into a more traditional (although still light’n’low) shoe, in big part because it was very wet and slippery, so the shallow tread made it hard to stay stable, and my feet and lower legs had got very tired as a result.

I continue to use them very regularly and in May 2012 ran another ultra trail event on the Ridgeway, the Ridgeway 40 in mostly hard conditions and my feet felt tired at the end, but only in the normal way you would expect for that distance!

The process of getting used to a barefoot shoe like the TG is a pleasure and the reward is simply a more natural running experience. I’m now pretty used to them and enjoy using them as my ‘default’, day-to-day running shoe.

Disclosure: Merrell have recently given me a new pair of Trail Gloves because I post very regularly on their Facebook page. I am a fan of the brand, but I say what I think and I do post some construction criticism. This review was recently updated, but most of it was written before they gave me the new shoes!

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Rockin the Ridgeway Pictures

Some pictures from the Ridgeway 40, mostly the first half. The runners in white tops are my friends Paul (black shorts) and Ian (blue shorts), and there’s 1 shot of me running up a hill (black long-sleeved top and black shorts). Glynn, the guy running in Huarache sandals is in picture 7.

http://www.justgiving.com/excellentlondonmarathon
http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/excellentlondonmarathon

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